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Buddhism and Animal Rights – an interview with Dr Tony Page

Buddhism is world-famous for its philosophy of compassion towards all people. Yet what precisely do its scriptures teach on the subject of humanity's rightful relationship with the animal kingdom? Dr Tony Page recently wrote a book on that very subject calling it "Buddhism and Animals".

Interview by Claudette Vaughan, August 2000.  

CLAUDETTE: How difficult was it to carry out research into Buddhist morality and the practice of flesh-eating?

TONY: It was surprisingly easy. I have been a student of Buddhism for 20 years but have always been disturbed by the number of modern Buddhists who ate meat, as well as by the relative neglect of animal rights as an issue with Buddhist groups in the West. I have always understood that, given its strong principle of "ahimsa" or non-violence, Buddhism frowned upon meat-eating, since meat-eating inevitably meant doing violence to animals that were slaughtered for food.

But I found that a lot of present day Buddhist teachers and practitioners were actually trying to justify meat-eating. Clearly, something was wrong. So I decided to see what the scriptural basis for meat-eating was. I resolved largely to by-pass what later commentators on Buddhism had said on the subject (many were meat-eaters) and go back to the original scriptures to see what the Buddha himself had stated. It is always best to go back to the source, as far as possible. And I was tremendously encouraged to see that there was a wealth of evidence showing that Buddha Shakyamundi was himself against the eating of meat and was in fact a strong advocate of vegetarianism and compassion towards animals. This formed the basis of my book.

CLAUDETTE: Isn't there a difference regarding the question of meat-eating between the two big schools of Buddhism, "Theravada" and "Mahayama"?

TONY: Yes, seemingly so. The Pali scriptures of the Theravada school report the Buddha as having died from eating some rotten pork at the end of his life, and also claim that he said it was OK to eat flesh as long as you yourself have not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal was killed especially for you. On the first point, when one investigates the Pali work "sukara-maddava" – translated by meat eaters as pork – the evidence suggests that it actually means "pig's delight", ie. a type of food favoured by pigs, probably truffles, rather than pig's meat.

On the second point, if one reads the relevant Pali scripture carefully, one sees that the phrase "killed especially for oneself" is not used by the Buddha. It is interpolated (in parentheses) by later commentators. All the Buddha says is that meat might not be eaten if it is seen, heard, or suspected, it may be used. It seems very clear to me that what this means is that any meat put into a Buddhist monk's begging bowl (along with various other food items) should not be eaten if the monk actually sees, hears from others, or suspects for himself that what has been given to him is indeed meat. If by chance he does not notice this and unrealisingly goes ahead and swallows what actually turns out to be meat (it presumably being mixed in with other pieces of food), he is not committing an offence against Buddhist morality, since he is acting unwittingly.

CLAUDETTE: What does the Mahayama school say?

TONY: Things are even clearer in these scriptures. The Buddha emphatically condemns as "twisters of truth" those people who go around saying that the Buddha allows meat eating. He says in no uncertain terms that flesh eating is incompatible with the Buddhist principle of compassion.

CLAUDETTE: You mentioned the principle of non-violence or non-harming (ahimsa) as being important in Buddhism. What does this mean in a practical everyday sense to you?

TONY: It means respecting all beings – humans and animals – as having feelings, as being sentient, and not deserving deliberately to be hurt. So a Buddhist would never swat a fly or purposefully step on an ant or spider. "Non-harming" also means that one should not work in a profession that involves harming others, for example, a butcher or soldier. The main point to remember is to try and show kindness to all creatures, including of course humans. But animals are part of it too. After all, the Buddha took birth many times as an animal – sometimes a deer, or a monkey, or a fish, or a dog etc. He knew what it was like to be an animal. He also taught that we have been animals in our past lives and in fact all the animals are related to us, quite literally. At some point in the past they have been our mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins. So if we harm animals, we are actually harming members of our own family.

CLAUDETTE: What is your understanding of karma and eating animals?

TONY: Karma is the spiritual law of justice which makes us experience the good and the bad effects of what we do to others. So, if we harm animals by killing them, eating them, or experimenting on them, we will have to suffer analogous experiences ourselves in the future – or at least have to undergo some form of suffering. Only when we ourselves go through what the animals have been through will we definitely know that hurting animals is wrong. So eventually we will develop an empathy, a belief in our kinship with all sentient beings, including animals. It is interesting to note, also, that if we are kind to animals, kindness and happiness flow back to us. The Buddha says that if you perform one act of kindness to an animal, you will be recompensed a hundredfold.

CLAUDETTE: What is the climate like now in England now with regard to animal rights?

TONY: I think it is growing more favourable. More and more people are hearing about the wrongs of meat-eating, hunting and vivisecting, and recently some major animal experimental centres have been closed down. Young people in particular are turning against animal exploitation. But the Blair Government is little better than the Conservatives when it comes to animal rights. We must continue to put pressure (non-violent of course) on the MPs.

CLAUDETTE: Tell us about your own organisation Tony?

TONY: A few years ago I set up the UK Antivivisection Information Service, which is just a very small, unsalaried organisation aimed at getting the truth out about vivisection – especially how the practice is of no medical value due to its many unpredictable physiological differences between animals and humans. I have written books on the theme, plus Buddhist books, which approach the question of animal rights from a more moral/spiritual angle. So I try to distribute this kind of information to whomever is interested in it.

CLAUDETTE: In your opinion how can we best avoid oppressing our fellow non-human creatures?

TONY: Through educating as many people as possible about the suffering that animals are unfairly subjected to, and letting people know that there is an alternative – vegetarianism, veganism and natural medicines. And we must practice non-harming in our daily lives.

We should be a living example of what we preach. It is no good, in my view, to preach Compassion and then discount human suffering, for example. Animals and humans should be viewed as equally capable of suffering, so we should care about human rights and animal rights equally. This definitely gets more respect from the public. But never should any being be sacrificed involuntarily-wise, and the dire karmic consequences of harming any being, no matter what the alleged (but deluded) motives are.

CLAUDETTE: Do you have a Utopian dream regarding animals and humans?

TONY: Yes. I dream of a world where animals are viewed as sentient and sensitive people, whose right to be free from human-enforced suffering is respected and where our only relations with animals are motivated by the wish to love and help them. At the same time, I want to see a society that respects other humans much more, too, and our IQ variants, sex and sexuality. We also need to change the education system, so we are not churning out robotic, fact-and figure-filled automata, but feelingful, caring, creative and truly human beings, in touch with what the Buddha calls our innermost Buddha-Mind of Wisdom and Compassion.

CLAUDETTE: Any final thoughts?

TONY: Just to thank you all in Australia for the great work you are doing. Whether you know it or not, by being vegetarian, or better still, vegan and gently encouraging others to support animal rights you are truly helping to bring a little bit of Paradise down to our Earth. And what could be more rewarding for us all than that?

Dr Tony Page can be contacted at:
UKAVIS Publications
PO Box 4746
London SE11 4XF